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The Reality of Seminary Debt

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This is not a topic most people like to talk about, on either side of the issue. Students and pastors would rather forget about the elephant in the room which stands at least at a solid 5 digits if not more. Then administrators, professors, and other school representatives would like to ignore the fact that yes – it is very, very expensive to get a theological degree. And the reward does not fiscally justify the means.

This post is not meant to scare you. There are enough sources for that out there already. Rather, this is to bring to your attention some numbers and facts.

First, debt is a very real thing for most undergraduate and graduate students. The number fluctuates depending on who you ask but the average undergraduate debt is around $25,000 (± 2,000).

That number easily doubles for graduate students, especially seminarians. For many, to graduate with under $30-40,000 would be a success. However, it is certainly a reality for that number to be much higher.

Now if we were going into an industry where we could easily pay off the debt within our first few years on the job, as it is with some lawyers and doctors, than this would not be an issue worth addressing. But that is not the case.

The average salary for a clergy is roughly $40,000 (that is a broad estimate excluding factors such as denomination and location). You will not be making enough to pay that back within ten years, or even twenty depending on the interest rates and your salary.

All of this is fairly negative, it isn’t meant to be. Nevertheless, some people need a reality check before making such a decision. Furthermore, finances are only one factor among many. Seminary is a spiritual and emotional decision. It stretches us in a number of ways, changes our life outline and sometimes sends us in a completely new direction than when we began.

In order to take full advantage of all the excellent things it has to offer, to fully experience all the changes it can have on a person, we can’t be financially burdened for the rest of our lives for trying to rush through a three-year period.

I find what Dr. Byron, a New Testament professor at Ashland Theological Seminary, has to say to be very helpful:

Part of the student loan problem in seminary starts in undergrad. Many students come to seminary with $25,000 or more in debt. Again, this is a two edged sword. You took out loans to get the degree which you needed to go to seminary. Perhaps one answer is to take a break between degrees and work to pay down that debt. Students always seem to be in such a rush to finish. I understand that, but taking 2, 3 or even 5 years to gain some maturity and financial freedom might not be a bad idea if you know you are going into a field that doesn’t pay all that well. Unless you plan on being a successful televangelist, chances are you won’t be very well-off. (source)

This is something I struggle with as well. Although I am younger than many of my classmates, I desire to be done as quickly as possible so that I can get out into “the real world” and begin to fulfill my calling.  Yet in truth, seminary is part of the fulfillment. How we go about handing its pressures and demands, costs and victories are to some degree a foreshadowing of our post-seminary life.

One thing which always encourages me is to read the stories from the Old Testament. Abraham, Joseph, Moses – all of these stories took a long time to develop. They were filled with detours and turn-arounds. At times it seemed like they would never reach their goal. But they did. God’s plan held true even if its timeframe looked very different from what they had hoped.

Be encouraged. This journey may take longer than you would have liked, but that is no surprise to God and does not in any way diminish the plan he has for you.

Written by David Ramos. David is a friend of God and a lover of the Old Testament. When he is not working on his M.Div at Ashland Seminary you can find him teaching Sunday-school or cooking pasta. You can read more from David at OffsetInnocence or connect with him on Twitter and Facebook. He currently lives and works in Cleveland, Ohio. 

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2 Reviews

  1. I was encouraged! Being reminded that God’s time frame is quite different than mine is exceedingly refreshing. This reminder comes at a unique time for me, a time when I am deciding whether or not to jump into seminary this fall, or take a year (even 2… or more?) to work and earn money. I also appreciate your acknowledgement of the spiritual and emotional factors in making the decision. Sometimes God will lead one way when “finances” say another way. May the Lord continue to be sovereign.

  2. I think this is a very good article. Debt can be a serious problem and we are called to be wise in our resources, but also trust God to provide. There are Seminaries that help protect against debt. For instance, i know that Moody Theological Seminary does a number of things to keep their students out of debt. They opted out of the Federal Loan program. Therefore, their students cannot take out student loans. Instead, they offer numerous scholarships and subsidized tuition. I am sure other schools also try to help in these matters too.

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